Who am I, how did I come to be? Well, it started a long time ago, back before I was born. You see my parents were not wealthy; they worked hard for everything. They were the children of the Great Depression and of World War II… living on rationing and raising their own food. They knew the value of hard work, overcoming adversity, and never giving up!
Even though they were raised in different parts of the East Coast, they had much in common. My father was born and raised in Kershaw County, South Carolina where his mother, Maggie, worked the looms for Spring’s Cotton Mill and his father, Ike, worked as the carding floor supervisor in the same mill. Grandfather Ike died before I was born, so I do not know much about my paternal grandfather. I do know that other than working in the cotton mill, he was, at one point, a lineman for Duke energy. Maggie, or Granny O as we called her, eventually married Bill Ogburn. The family, my aunt, father, grandmother, and step grandfather ended up working a share cropping farm. My father grew up in a rather small, personal family that was part of a much larger “clan” and Maggie was born Nellie LaVerne Mahaffey. When her mother died, everyone started calling her Maggie. see PHOTO 1 (below)
The Robinson Clan
Clyburn Robinson is my dad
On the other hand, my mother came from a large family consisting of my Grandmother and Grandfather Rollins and six siblings. see PHOTO 2 (below) Mother was born in Wood County, West Virginia and was the second oldest child. You will learn more about her older brother, Tom, further on down the road. My grandfather, before he became a railroad signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was a sharecropper and the family lived back in a “holler”, in a log cabin, located at Red Hill, just outside Parkersburg, West Virginia. When Grandpa Rollins got the job with the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, they moved in town. I was rather impressed with his job because he got to ride in the caboose, stretch out over a rail on the back platform, and swing a huge lantern with a red and green light.
Rachael And Calvin Rollins, Wedding Photograph
(left to right) Granny O, Grandpa Ike, Daddy
My father was a high school dropout and in fact only finished the ninth grade… He came of age during World War II and dropped out of high school to join the Navy. See PHOTO 3 (above) He was a Gunner’s Mate in both the North Atlantic and Pacific theaters. During his time in the Navy he rose to the rank of Chief Gunner's Mate and completed his GED. Toward the end of his career in the U.S. Navy, he completed his Bachelor of Science in Education with a concentration in Government and U.S. History. Later, in his career as an educator, he earned a Master of Arts in Guidance and Counseling and an Advanced Certificate in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Special Education. See PHOTO 4 (below)
Parkersburg High School
My mother went to high school at Parkersburg High, a school that is still in use today, and one that my grandfather helped build. See PHOTO 5 (above) After she graduated, she attended the Camden Clark Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. She told the story of borrowing five dollars from her father so that she could buy a watch, necessary equipment for entering nursing school. Due to the depression, it was a great sacrifice for my grandfather to come up with that money. From the stories my mother told, I have a good idea that she was quite the wild child. She studied and worked with a group of student nurses who called themselves “the outcasts of poker flats”. So, they stole the moniker from a 1917 Bret Harte short story, at least they had read the story. See PHOTO 6 (below) It was while my mother was doing her student nursing rotation at the Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC that she met my father. Believe it or not they met in a place called the Kit Kat Club! See PHOTO 7 (below)
Here is where World War II intervened. After participating in the Battle of the North Atlantic and the invasion of North Africa, my dad was shipped off to the Pacific theater. Meanwhile, my mom was back in Parkersburg, where she completed her nursing certification. They did not get married until, after having one of the ships he was stationed on shot out from under him by kamikazes and another damaged in a typhoon, my dad came home on survivor’s leave. In a memoir I found amongst his papers, I discovered his recounting of the time he spent on both the destroyer class ships USS Thatcher and USS Spence. I know that he was a Gunner’s Mate and, as a part of the Little Beaver Squadron (Desron 23), participated in the Battle of Cape Saint George. See PHOTO 8
Outcasts of Poker Flats
Kit Kat Club
Gunner's Mates on the USS Thatcher
When he did return home on that survivor’s leave, he and mom got married. They were married, on July 16, 1945, in the Evangelical United Brethren Church of Parkersburg, West Virginia. That date should send off bells and whistles because it was only a month before another significant date. Believe me theirs was a rather strange wedding! You see, other than my Uncle Tom, there were no male attendants in their wedding and my mother’s dress was made of parachute silk. See PHOTO 9 (below) You may ask just why were there no male attendants? Well, let us just say Percy Statts and Bill Harmon, physicists, who were to be involved in the wedding were in Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Just before the wedding, all the scientists and workers were confined to the facility. Shortly after that, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred. You see, ORNL had been participating in one part of the Manhattan Project. See PHOTOS 10 & 11 (below)
From this brief, yet not complete, little history, you can see how my parents were raised similarly and how they were raised differently. They met many trials and tribulations before they even began a family. One issue was getting to my father’s new duty station. They drove cross-country using ration stamps. While they were crossing the desert, they had three tires blow out and only two tire rationing stamps. They also had to plan carefully because of rations on fuel. Luckily, they made it to San Francisco and as they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, victory was declared in the Pacific theater.
My parents' wedding
Young Bill and Percy
Bill and Percy, the later years
By now, it should be obvious that I was raised in a military family. Up until my older sister started school, we would spend half the year where my father was stationed and the other half with my grandparents in West Virginia. Believe me my father was stationed in some not so very interesting places… Charleston, South Carolina, Durham, North Carolina, Newport, Rhode Island, Bainbridge, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia. Join the Navy, see the world through a porthole while your family moves up and down the East coast. My older sister was born in Parkersburg; I was born in Durham, North Carolina. However, since I have lived around Norfolk, Virginia since I was 7, I consider myself a Virginian. My younger brother was born, six years later, in Bainbridge, Maryland. See PHOTO 12 (below)
As I just mentioned, I was born in Durham, North Carolina. My parents were there because my father had been assigned to the ROTC program at the University of North Carolina. It was there that I made a rather interesting entrance into the world. I was born, feet first, and decided to use the umbilical cord and placenta as a parachute. In other words, I almost wasn’t born alive… Six weeks after that shaky beginning, we were on our way to Newport, Rhode Island and a new duty station. See PHOTO 13 (below)
Growing up a military brat and moving all around, even though it was just the East Coast, made it hard to make lasting friends! I changed elementary schools’ multiple times and managed to miss the basics of writing in cursive. So, I am rather self-taught and write in what I call “pig scratch”! The truth is all that school switching led to the fact that I also struggled with reading and math. It was not until the fourth grade that I was able to read on grade level!
Enter the times we spent with my mother’s family.
Being three years younger than my big sister, I decided that crawling was passé. I needed to keep up with that “big sister”, so I just really skipped the crawling stage. Yes, that bit of precociousness came back to bite me in the butt! However, sister, having been an only child for three years, did not exactly want to give up that title of “only child”! She would lead me into all sorts of childhood mischief and delinquency including setting my grandmother’s chair on fire! She talked me into poking a roll of newspaper into the fireplace and when it caught on fire we panicked and shoved the inferno stick under the chair. Duh… did I mention that I was about two years old and sister was five? We grew to be as different as night and day… she was an avid reader and preferred the indoors. I would rather be outside, in a pool, in a lake, fishing on the dock, exploring, and generally enjoying nature.
As I previously stated, before my sister and I were old enough to attend school, we would spend half the year with my mother’s family. How did that work? Daddy’s ship was “in port” for six months and out to sea for the other six months. Even after we started school, we would spend the summers in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
(left to right) Me, Mom, and Chris
Me, less than six days old
Spending summers with my Great Aunt Martha and the rest of my mother’s family allowed me to become more curious about nature and all its interactions. You see, my great aunt would take us fishing, swimming, and exploring all around Lake Washington, WV. See PHOTO 14 (below) During the week, she lived in town and worked as a paralegal, on the weekends she would drag us out to the lake where she not only taught us to swim but also how to enjoy nature. Her swimming lessons were unlike any you would see today. We had to swim across the lake behind her rowboat before we could go to the beach by ourselves. She would pile us in the boat, row out into the lake, and throw us over the side. It was sink or swim! If you floundered, she would stretch the oar out to you and haul you back to the boat. No children died in these life lessons! It sounds cruel but we loved her… She was the crazy, neat aunt everyone wanted! It was her swimming lessons that gave me the mental wiring (the wiring I missed because I never crawled) that granted me hand-eye coordination and the needed wiring to be able to read. While that didn’t entirely fix my reading issues, it did help. See PHOTO 15 (below)
Along with Great Aunt Martha, the other biggest influence from my mother’s family was my Uncle Tom. He was one cool cat! In fact, we nicknamed him Thomas Q Pussycat. At age 14, he developed polio, the second pandemic of the 1900s. He did not let that keep him down! He went to college and became a watchmaker. He also had something to do with constructing roads. During part of his convalescence he got to meet Franklin Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Georgia. He never let his disability keep him down! Determined to drive, he petitioned the State of West Virginia to allow him to use hand controls in his car. SEE PHOTOS 16 & 17 (below) He was an avid outdoorsman, a writer, radio personality, civil rights advocate, and a spokesman for the differently abled.
At the request of lifelong friends, Bill Harmon and Percy Statts, Uncle Tom moved to Clinton, TN. Bill and Percy had each dated my mother and, for a time, Percy was engaged to her. Once Uncle Tom moved to Clinton and opened the Lake Jewelry Store, he met and married my Aunt Mona. She just happened to work for Bill and Percy at ORNL. See PHOTOS 18 & 19 (below)
Uncle Tom, as I said was one cool cat! Man could he play a mean guitar and banjo! In fact, he never met a stringed instrument he could not play! When we would go visit, we would sit on his bed and sing gospel songs for hours. On the back porch of the house he designed, he taught me to instinct shoot an air rifle. When he took me to Lake Norris, he taught me to fish and fly fish. His mantra for me was “Babsie, always tend your line!” Aside from teaching me to shoot a rifle, fish, and fly fish, he instilled in me the notion of equality for all people… black, brown, red, and white!
Uncle Tom was an inspiring and accomplished man: Executive Director of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association, mentor, civil rights activist, and a member of the President’s Council on Americans with Disabilities, helping to write the first ADA laws. He also worked with John Rice Irwin in the development of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee.
Now that you have a smidgen of family background, it is time to meet my other heroes! Sure, Great Aunt Martha and Uncle Tom were my heroes, but I had two more people who inspired me to reach for the stars…. Mom and Dad, the ever-present role models in my life!
Great Aunt Martha fishing
Great Aunt Martha posing
Hand controls in Uncle Tom's car
Uncle Tom posing next to his car
Uncle Tom and Aunt Mona